Speaking to an audience of more than 100 people last week at Congregation Etz Chayim in West Toledo, the Lubavitcher rabbi from Connecticut said Judaic law teaches that all war is abhorrent but it is also necessary "in a world of people all too willing to use weapons for brutal reasons."
Although the Torah and the Talmud, the Judaic holy books, were written centuries ago, they address situations that are relevant today, including the current U.S. war in Iraq, the rabbi said.
"It took 3,000 years for the Western world to catch up with the teachings of the Talmud," he said.
Virtually all major ancient civilizations, from the Chinese to the Greeks to Native Americans, glorified war and treated it as a source of fame and salutary consequences, the rabbi said, but the Torah treats war as a terrible scenario that should be avoided whenever possible.
The Torah states that every human being is created in God's image and everyone is created for a purpose.
Decisions on war force people into a number of ethical dilemmas, Rabbi Yaffe said, including:
w●When is it justified to wage war and destroy people who are God's creations?
w●What weapons does Judaic law approve?
w●When is the risk to noncombatants acceptable?
Trying to legislate rules of engagement "is a waste of effort," Rabbi Yaffe said, citing international treaties that forbid the use of expanding bullets, which kill people quickly, but allow the use of Napalm, which means that "it's OK to roast them slowly in a gel form of gasoline."
And if both sides don't agree to abide by the treaty, there is no authority to enforce such rules, he said.
Only the Creator of the universe, the source of Holy Scripture, provides laws that are "absolute and transcendent and relevant to all of humanity," Rabbi Yaffe said.
The first step in confrontations is to seek peace, but without making concessions. Appeasement gives rise to tyranny, as seen when the British and French allowed the rise of Nazi Germany, he said.
"If someone threatens you with force, Jewish law says one must see that force as being applied," Rabbi Yaffe said.
Judaic laws regarding nations are the same as the laws for individuals, he said, only "written large." And the more power that a nation or person possesses, the more responsibility that goes with it.
When a person's life is threatened, people who are able to assist them without weakening or jeopardizing themselves are obligated, under Judaic law, to do help.
The same principle applies to nations, Rabbi Yaffe said.
Further, if a person or a nation knows of an imminent attack against a third party, the individual or nation must, under Judaic law, launch a pre-emptive strike in order to save lives.
"The intention to use force in unlawful ways is enough. It makes [the aggressor] a murderer," Rabbi Yaffe said.
Aggressors who seek to destroy another person "forfeit and reject" their status as being created in the image of God, he said.
Rabbi Yaffe, who was ordained by the Lubavitch head-
quarters in New York and
serves as rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford, Conn., said the most important thing in war "is to get it over."
Whatever weapons or tactics are needed to accomplish that goal are allowable, and it does not have to be a "fair fight." If the aggressors use
primitive weapons, the defenders can counter with superior weaponry if available. The only exception is that the Torah forbids arms that would damage the environment.
Biological, chemical, and nonconventional weapons can be used if they will lead to a speedy resolution, therefore saving more lives, he said. But nuclear weapons, which would make the land uninhabitable for thousands of years, would be forbidden.
"The Talmud says, 'Your quarrel is with the people who live in this country now, not with their children who may live in peace with your children,'●●" he said.
"The Torah anticipated a level of technology that people didn't even have when it was written," he added.
War can force combatants to make terrible choices, such as when insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq, hid behind children as they fired at U.S. soldiers.
"These [U.S. soldiers] are decent people. This is a decent country," he said. But Judaic law says the blood of the innocent is on the hands of the aggressors, the rabbi said, and making concessions would only encourage them to commit more heinous deeds.
"The Talmud says that 'he who is merciful to the cruel will be cruel to the merciful,'●" Rabbi Yaffe said.
Citing Gen. William T. Sherman's "scorched-earth" military tactics during the Civil War and his famous quotation, "War is hell," Rabbi Yaffe said the Union general understood that "swift and ferocious actions" are justified if they bring about a quick end to the fighting.
"When the war is over and shooting stops, that's when life resumes," Rabbi Yaffe said.
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